Friday, June 23, 2017

Tom Cruise meets "The Mummy," and disappointment ensues...

Marvel’s doing it.  Warner Bros. is doing it. Fox is doing it.  Sony tried to do it (and blew it, finally surrendering and begging Marvel for help).  Now Universal hops on the “shared universe” bandwagon.  Well, hops AGAIN would be more correct, as this newest iteration of The Mummy is the studio’s THIRD attempt at starting a film series focusing on their catalog of famous monsters, after neither 2010’s The Wolfman or 2014’s Dracula Untold made enough noise to warrant continuing along those lines.  Universal calls it the “Dark Universe,” and it sorta gets me thinking - I’ll bet the filmmakers behind the 1930s’ Frankenstein and Dracula movies weren’t thinking ahead to House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula when they created those classics, but that’s the reality of big-ticket genre filmmaking today.

Instead, eighty years after those masterpieces of pulp, we get CGI ghoulies roaming through a barely-there plot “driven” by a paper-thin protagonist and repeatedly undercut by smart-ass attempts at humor.  At least, like many another underachieving megapicture, The Mummy gives good prologue, setting up its ancient Egyptian villainess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) as a woman scorned who hath plenty of hellish fury.   Unfortunately, after her impressive introduction, we jump ahead to present-day Iraq, where Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a U.S. soldier who’s really a soldier of fortune, leads his buddy Lt. Vail (Jake Johnson) into a village occupied by local insurgents that Nick also believes holds a great archaeological treasure he can sell to the highest bidder.

Nick doesn’t take much seriously, but he’s not so much roguish as a one-dimensional wiseguy, always ready with a quip to undermine any dramatic or horrific moment, and there’s not much else to him.  Another character describes him, quite correctly, as “utterly without a soul.”  Thus, there’s no solid center to the action that ensues when Ahmanet’s sarcophagus is unearthed and winds up in England after the plane transporting it crashes (in the most effective action scene).  Ahmanet resurrects looking much the worse for wear and goes about sucking the life energy out of assorted hapless victims while pursuing Nick, whom she has targeted as the host of the Egyptian chaos god Set.  Poor beleaguered Nick is also occasionally visited by the jokey spectre of the now-deceased Lt. Vail, and eventually captured by the militaristic followers of one Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe).
Perhaps Nick is so underdeveloped because Dr. Jekyll is the true star of The Mummy, in terms of Dark Universe’s ongoing series development.  He presides over Prodigium, a secret society devoted to the ferreting out of evil, and already has an expansive collection of trophies - vampire skulls, a Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon hand and what appears to be the book from the Stephen Sommers version of The Mummy.  That film similarly buried any horrific potential under digital effects and slaphappiness, but the effect is especially disappointing here because this version of The Mummy keeps edging toward being scary and then retreating, as if fearful of challenging either the audience or the PG-13 rating.  Even a scene that should have been a surefire chill-maker - mummy minions rising from underwater tombs - blunted.  Director Alex Kurtzman keeps the film moving on a superficial level, but the action lacks variety and surprise.
That also goes, unfortunately, for the Mummy herself.  In walking-withered form, we’ve seen her twitchy CG-type many times before, and though Boutella gives a fine performance of what she’s given to do - conveying a palpable sense of vengeful passion - when Ahmanet’s true face is restored, this Mummy lacks what gave the ’30s classics their true heft: a sense of sympathy for their monsters.  Moreover, Dr. Jekyll’s backstory has been reconceived in a manner that robs the character of his tragic dimensions.  It all leads to a climax that attempts to pay off emotional connections that just aren’t there (Jenny Halsey, a rival treasure hunter who becomes Nick’s romantic interest and is played by Annabelle Wallis, is as much a cipher as he is), and concludes with a final scene that has the feel of something tacked on as a result of negative test scores.

Yes, it’s evident Tom Cruise is giving one hundred percent of himself in his role, and I will give credit where it’s due by saying that he always does.  His performance is probably the best thing about The Mummy.  However, he’s not the monster, and in Monster Movies, the monster had better be the star of the show, and this one ain’t… and that’s the overall problem with The Mummy - its makers have surrendered any possibility of a distinctive product with its own personality or identity in pursuit of the almighty “four quadrants.”  When Aesop wrote his fable of the miller, his son and their donkey, he knew that when you try to please everybody, you wind up pleasing nobody and can lose your ass in the process.  Why don’t these studios, in trying so desperately to created “shared universe” film franchises, understand this?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

LucasFilm fires co-directors of the "Han Solo" film

Hey, folks. A quick word here about last night's news about the upcoming Han Solo movie losing its directors AFTER SIX MONTHS OF PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY!!! Phil Lord and Chris Miller have left the movie, citing that age-old phrase, "creative differences," and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy has issued a statement saying it had "become apparent" that she and the directors had "a different vision" for what the movie should be.

Look, movies lose directors in pre-production quite often, so that wouldn't be that big of a deal, and it even sometimes happens after a week or two of shooting, but SIX MONTHS into the process??? What the Hell were LucasFilm and Lord & Miller talking about during the months and months of pre-production??? If a group of people throwing 200 million dollars around to make a movie haven't had effective enough communication before things get this far along to realize they're not all on the same page... Geez!!

Personally, I never particularly wanted a Han Solo "solo" film, but if we have to have one, I damn-sight want it to be a good one. The events of the last 24 hours, however, are nothing short of a complete, unmitigated disaster. Movies don't get six months into shooting, then take on a new director and just keep on chugging along. Whoever the new director may be will have to shut things down for a time to review what has been shot and decide what different (if anything) he wants to do, and then may decide to just start over from scratch. I'll be SHOCKED if this movie, whatever it turns out to be, still makes its May 25th release date next year.

Star Wars fanatic that I am, I'm burning all sorts of incense in the hope that miracles will happen and this Hindenburg-ish disaster somehow all works out in the end, but I am most definitely bracing myself for the biggest epic fail in Star Wars movie history (and yes, that includes the "Clone Wars" animated theatrical film...).

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The DC Movie Universe course-corrects with "Wonder Woman"

There are large segments of the movie-going public who are hyper-excited about a superhero movie being centered on a female character, and that one has actually been directed by a female, and how this is oh-so long overdue and oh-so important in the annals of human history… blah, blah, blah...   All of that may or may not be true, but I don’t really give a fig about any of it.  Male, female, dog, cat, horse… who/whatever makes up a movie is irrelevant to me, as long as it’s good, and this one definitely is.  Wonder Woman is an excellent example of the “superhero” film genre, and I will explain why this is so, if you are kind enough to read on.

The story borrows aspects of Wonder Woman’s rich comic history while relying heavy on modern interpretations such as the character’s much-ballyhooed reboot by writer/artist George Perez in the 1980s.  After a short prelude, we’re introduced to a young Diana and her home of Themyscira.  In an island paradise inhabited only by the Amazons, Diana is raised by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and trained by the Amazon General Antiope (Robin Wright, in a great performance considering her limited screen time).  Although it lacks a Loki, I felt we learned far more about Themyscira than we did about Asgard in the first Thor film, and the setting is put to good use to explore who Diana is and where she comes from before sending her out into the world.

Years later, with Diana grown into adulthood (now played by Gal Gadot) and starting to fully come into her powers, the Amazons’ solitude is intruded upon by an American spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and pursuing German soldiers who accidentally come across the island hidden from the world by the gods.  Believing the god of war Ares to be behind this “war to end all wars,” Diana chooses to leave her home and journey into man’s world to put an end to the villain’s schemes by re-assuming the Amazons true purpose in helping man reach his full potential and strive above the pettiness and violence caused by Ares’ influence.  Whew!  Simple, right…?

Credit goes to director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg for taking the best aspects of Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor and merging them into a film that might just be a tad better than either of those two.  Jenkins creates a lush, visual representation of a place steeped in Greek mythology, and balances that with History Channel-realistic depictions of the horror of the First World War, tossing some nice fish-out-of-water humor along the way.

What Wonder Woman gets so very right is its choice of stars and, for the first time in this DC Movie Universe since Man of Steel, a willingness to give the central character a bit of heart.  While fan reaction to the casting of Gadot was mixed, the choice has turned out to be a savvy one.  No, she’s not going to challenge Meryl Streep anytime soon, but she does what is asked of her in this role very, very well.  There is a moment in which Diana, lost in the midst of a war she doesn’t really understand, but knowing that the fighting is harming innocents all around, races across no man’s land and, with the help of a ragtag group, turns the tide of the stalemate.  It’s here, in Diana’s humanity, and in her need to put herself between others and danger, that the film so successfully sells us on the character, and I found Gadot’s eyes and her body language essential in doing so.

Pine and Gadot’s chemistry is wonderful, as each of them have moments of strength, wit and vulnerability with the other, without ever having one character dominate the relationship.  The interplay between all the characters is so entertaining that you shouldn’t find yourself waiting for the next mandatory action set-piece.  Even Trevor’s band of mercenary misfits, while obviously the sort of characters who merely serve as some screenplay motivation-providers, are played by actors (Saïd Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock, and Ewen Bremner) who each manage to imbue their characters with enough to make us actually like them a bit.

I also found the choice to put the character in World War I to be brilliant, in that it distances this story from the other DC movies, allowing it to be told totally on its own, without any reference to the rest of DC’s “cinematic universe.”  That being said, I do find it a bit curious that this character has now been in one-and-a-third movies and the phrase “Wonder Woman” has yet to be uttered by anyone.  I wonder if the upcoming Justice League film will finally allow someone to speak that name.

While acclaim for Wonder Woman seems to be widespread, there are some poor, jaded souls out there who believe it necessary to find fault with the movie’s final act including a major action set-piece battle, full of explosions and destruction on a grand scale.  To complain seeing characters bash Hell out of each other amidst pyrotechnics and massive-scale property damage in a superhero movie is akin to complaining that all love stories inevitably result in two people kissing.  Dogs bark, cats meow and superheroes have landscape-destroying fights - it’s what they do, people.

Wonder Woman is a visually-lush, entertaining summer movie that is loads of fun. It injects a breath of fresh(er) air into the DC cinematic universe and provides some promise for the upcoming movies DC/Warner Bros. has in store. If you are growing tired of seeing costumed characters destroying each other and landscapes, however, then take heart, because Woody Allen is still making movies you might like.